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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

AI requires an understanding of intent: a look at an old movie

I was watching a movie from 1934 called “Chained.”  Clark Gable plays an American rancher whose ranch is in Argentina. They are rivals for the same woman. Gable’s  rival is a richer and classier man who is a shipowner. They meet in New York (together with the woman they are fighting over) and have the following conversation:

do you ship any of your animals up here?

yes, some cattle

I hope you use our boats

no your rates are too high

well, we’ll have to see about that

my animals are healthy, they can travel on a slower boat; less money

good economics; where did you learn about that?

I was at Yale

I’m Harvard

This conversation tells one all there is to know about AI, education, and learning (my three favorite topics.)

First AI. How would you get a computer to respond to

good economics; where did you learn about that?

with I was at Yale?

First, this is not an answer to the question. Also, the question isn’t what it seems to be. Where did you learn not to waste money? is a fairly obnoxious question. The word “economics” makes the question sound as if it were more than it was. But, one doesn’t ask someone who has said something simple (I try to save money when I can is all he was saying after all) about where he has learned it. Unless of course you are talking to a four year old. This is a remark made by someone who thinks he is much better than the person to whom he is speaking. 

I was at Yale is not an answer to where Gable learned this at all. It is an answer to the underlying snooty question that is really being asked, which is more or less I guess you aren’t as dumb as I thought you were. The answer I was at Yale means I am fancier than you thought I was.

I’m Harvard is a response that says that we are in the same class after all. I feel better about talking to you now.

How would a computer understand the power games going on here? How should it understand that Harvard and Yale are actually answers about social class and that this conversation is in no way about economics nor is it about any economics courses that Gable might have taken at Yale. It is about two people sizing each other up, which is something that often goes on in a conversation where two powerful people meet, and especially one where a woman they are fighting over is at the table.

So here is a translation of this conversation that most people who were watching this movie would have  subconsciously understood:

how do you do your business?

can I make money on you?

no your rates are too high, I’ll explain 

my animals are healthy, they can travel on a slower boat; less money

well; you aren’t stupid, but do you have any actual education? Are you in my social class?

I am as good as you are

So you are.

Can a computer do any of this?  Of course not. 

In order to understand what people’s real intentions are and what they really mean by what they say you have to understand a great deal about the world in which we live. In fact, since is a 1934 movie after all, many younger people might have trouble understanding it. If you don't see Harvard and Yale as class markers, you would miss it. In 1934, Harvard and Yale were the ultimate class indicators. Today, this is still true but in a different sort of way. 

Today, we would see  I’m Harvard as being an odd way to talk, not as a way of being snooty and saying I am as good as you are. But we also, in today's world, understand that anyone who goes to Harvard must be very good at test taking, and must have been an all A student in high school. This was not true in 1934. 

Elon Musk can fear smart computers all he wants, but until computers can glean the underlying intent of a sentence on many levels he hasn’t much to worry about. Modern AI is about key words and search not about ideas. The main ideas in this dialogue are never actually mentioned, so searching key words won’t help much. The shipowner is saying, more or less: let’s find out how good you are because I am sure I am better than you and therefore better for this woman we are fighting over. The rancher’s response is I am as good as you are. In fact the movie has the woman going back to Clark Gable because of this very scene. She had previously said she wanted money and social status and Gable proved he was his rival’s equal.

Where can you find all this? Not in the actual sentences uttered, that is for sure. Understanding is about context and inferences and intent. One must figure out other people’s goals and plans in any conversation. Which of today’s ‘AI’s’  can be in a conversation and figure out just the right thing to say to undercut the other person?

How do we learn to do all this? Might we learn it at Yale? You would, in fact, but probably not in class. Real learning, the kind that forces us to re-think what we are doing and look for the underlying intentions of those with whom we are engaged, takes place in the dorms and after class. The teacher can babble at you all you want but you still have to talk to people, sound intelligent, figure out where they are coming from, and attempt to engage them and perhaps convince them. This is learned at Yale but it is not taught at Yale.

In fact, very little of that we need to teach people and what people need to learn in order to understand the world is learned at school, its learned from experience and reflection on that experience.

We have AI wrong, learning wrong, and education wrong. Other than that we are doing fine.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Take Deep Dive when you want to learn something

The latest fad in e-learning is usually something silly, but the current fad of nano-learning (look here if you want to know more about this ridiculous fad:  (  ) drives me especially crazy. Why? Because it is the exact opposite of the solution to the fundamental problem we have in education and learning. 

When we learn something and feel that we really know that thing, something is always the case. We have taken a deep dive into that thing.

What do I mean when I say “deep dive?” You have taken a  deep dive when you immerse yourself in something, obsess about it, look at everything through the perspective of that thing and make yourself an expert. 

Our current system of education makes deep dives very difficult to do. At this moment I am thinking about this because we have built a 6 month long deep dive into cybersecurity for the Pentagon. Trust me, it takes at least that long to really understand cyber warfare. 

So, now we have to roll this course out. When I was first contacted about building this course, the Pentagon’s plan was to roll it out to soldiers. I wondered how many soldiers had the “hacker mentality” which to put it briefly is about breaking into things not about following rules.

But I am now starting to understand that while this may not be a great plan but it might be the only plan. Why?

Businesses say that they are worried about cyber defense and they certainly should be. But, businesses will not take someone off the job and send him or her to school for 6 months. They may be worried about cyber but they aren’t worried enough to do that. We will have to build 2 day long courses, or maybe even 2 week long courses in order to get corporations to send students.

When I realized that this was probably the case, I also realized that this has always been my problem with the people in charge of training at corporations. Of course they all want nano-learning now. They never want to send people to training (and now complain about them having to spend even an hour on it). They send people to training because they have to, but they have always wanted things to be fast. 

When I first started working in corporate training, I was fascinated by that fact everything that needed to be taught was taught in a one week long course. Why one week? Because they flew people in to the training center on Sunday and flew them home on Friday night. Online learning has only made this problem worse. Now that they don’t to fly anyone anywhere they can make the courses even shorter.

Curiously, the one week course is identical in length to college courses which usually meet three hours a week for 14 weeks, about 40 hours. How is it that everything you learn in college takes 40 hours also? This easy enough to explain. No deep dives.

If you want to do a deep dive into something in college, you need to wait for a PhD program or you can sometimes finagle a senior year where you can devote one semester to doing only one thing. But, this is very hard to do. The education system actually prevents deep dives rather than encouraging them.

School is nearly always shallow. It is obsessed with covering the material rather than with mastery of something. So, we memorize short bits of information, the Pythagorean theorem, how to balance a chemical equation, who won the battle of Hastings, who the main protagonists are in A Tale of Two Cities. We do this because we are told to do it. And, not surprisingly, we forget most of what we have memorized after we take a multiple choice test.

Lately, this kind of education is justified by the idea that one is teaching “critical thinking”  (although it used to be justified by covering things every educated person must know.) “Critical thinking” is now used to justify doing things the way they have always been done. 

As an example, The United States Military Academy (USMA) offers thirteen possible majors. Now, just let your mind wander for a bit and try to imagine what those majors might be. USMA is meant to train future officers for the Army. Students know what they have signed up for and the Army knows what kinds of graduates it wants to produce. My guess would have included majors in warfare, weapons, strategy, leadership, discipline and such. Not that I would have thought that there would be majors at all. USMA isn’t a liberal arts college after all. They needn’t cover academic subjects nor do they have to teach in the style of Harvard and Yale. Unlike Harvard and Yale, entering students know what they have signed up for and what they will be doing when they graduate.

I guess I was just dreaming. Our current sense of what goes on in school is dominated by academic subjects. You can major in history at USMA. Really? A course or two sure. But Army officers who were history majors? Couldn't we teach them stuff they would actually use?

My son told me he was going to major in history after being in college (at Columbia) for a week or so. I told him to get on the next plane and come home. Why would I do that? Because college ought to be a place where one takes a deep dive into something, coming out prepared to do something in the real world that interests one greatly. In my son’s case, I knew what he wanted to dive into since he was eight years old. He was obsessed with subways. But, no surprise, there was no subway major available. I told him to figure out how he could create one. (It all turned out fine. He is still playing with subways (in Los Angeles. He is 42 years old and Chief Innovation Officer for LA Metro.) Why wasn’t someone talking to him about his interests and helping him make a deep dive into subways? Because colleges don’t work that way of course. But shouldn't USMA work that way?

But, you can be a history major at USMA.  I couldn't believe my eyes when I read this:

The Department of History's Mission is to educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadets through the discipline of history so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.

As Army officers, West Point graduates will perform a broad spectrum of missions vitally important to our nation's security and interests. They must be intellectually and professionally prepared to face these challenges in an uncertain and dangerous world inhabited by peoples of different languages, religions, and cultures. The Department of History contributes to cadets' intellectual and professional development by imparting historical knowledge, an appreciation of history, and critical thinking and communication skills.

Officers who are critical thinkers challenge accepted wisdom in the search for truth and justice. They are open-minded and able to make independent and informed decisions. They reject simplistic answers that suggest the existence of a black-and-white world; rather, they accept the ambiguity associated with most human endeavors and seek the best solution rather than a single "correct" one. The study of history encourages critical thinking by requiring cadets to:
formulate critical questions;
conduct research by gathering and prioritizing information;
analyze information within the broad context in which it appears;
interpret and synthesize information;
derive reasoned, evidence-based conclusions;
assess and adjust their conclusions as conditions change or new information becomes available.

Wow! Of course, this major is justified by the notion of “critical thinking.” Although it is fairly obvious that one learns to be a critical thinker in any area of life that one dives into, the study of the liberal arts are often justified by that expression. 

You want to be an English major at USMA? No problem:

We prepare cadets to be outstanding communicators and adaptable critical thinkers who can synthesize concepts; appreciate diverse cultures, ideas, and forms of expression; and assess clearly the implications of complex ethical questions.

Because the Army needs officers who can talk about the major themes in Shakespeare. Oh, and they need critical thinkers. 

I was surprised to find that you can be a math major at USMA. I was a math major. It prepared me for nothing. From the USMA math site:

Our purpose is to provide each cadet the opportunity to gain the mathematical education essential to progressive and continuing development throughout a career as a Regular Army officer. Emphasis is placed on achieving intellectual discipline, mastery of reasoning, understanding of mathematical concepts, skill in practical applications of mathematics and appreciation for the role of mathematics in the military.

What is the problem here? Don’t we need officers who can reason? Of course we do. Will they be using the Quadratic formula when they reason on the battlefield about how to confront the enemy? One wonders what “mathematics in the military” might mean? I guess one might need some math to figure out how to fire a long range missile or to do cryptography. Is that the kind of math they teach to their majors? If it is, wouldn't all officers need that?  

The issue here is allowing students to take a deep dive. That is not the same as a major. The very concept of a major has more to do with the needs of the faculty than the needs of the students. Students are required to become “well-rounded” in a field. But the real requirement is that every professor wants people to take the course they teach so computer science majors (for example) must learn theory they will never need because computer science faculties always have theoreticians on there faculty. (The reason for this is that theoreticians cannot find employment outside of the university.)

And sure enough, if we go back to USMA we find when we look up the computer science major:

The Computer Science (CS) major at the US Military Academy develops fundamental competency in theoretical and technical areas of computing, as well as a characteristic style of thinking and problem-solving.

Moreover the key issue isn’t what USMA wants or needs and can be found on the same page:

The Computer Science program is accredited by the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET

In other words, accreditors have decided what army officers must know about computer science. And you can be sure that  ABET has theoreticians as part of the accreditation team.

So, the very opposite of a deep dive, is typical of most majors in anything because a committee that wants to satisfy all the faculty has determined that a major should skim the surface of the many sub-parts of a discipline.

In real life however, deep dives are the norm. For example, piano players must take a deep dive into piano playing in order to be any good. They have to practice endlessly and continually try more difficult things. They needn’t memorize the six principles of piano playing or major in piano. They just need to dive in and keep going.

This is true of any profession. Doctors need to dive into medicine. So of course, one would think that medical schools allow that. But they really don’t. Doctors have to memorize the names of bones and take courses in anatomy. They do not really dive into medicine until they are interns and then their lives, if they are really committed, are a continual deep dive into new procedures and findings. The reasons for this in medicine are the same as those in computer science. Shouldn’t every doctor know a little about everything in medicine? That sounds right to faculty who want to teach their specialties, but that attitude prevents deep dives (which are relegated to internships in the case of doctors.)

We are concerned here with what it means to restructure educational practice into deep dives and get away form the smorgasbord approach to education. Colleges were structured the way they are today a very long time ago. We will discuss this later. For now we want to consider an online course we have built that makes clear what a deep dive is and should serve as a model for education at all levels. 


Our cyber course is made up of 17 tasks plus a very difficult capstone. Each one follows the story line of the one before and builds on what was learned there. Before we begin to discuss that course in any detail we want you to hear from the first student who took that course. She is someone who never graduated high school and was working as a massage therapist when she decided to test out our course:

Task 3 made me a little angry.  The task was designed perfectly.  It had a lot in common with the second task but it required you to kind of approach it more analytically to figure out exactly what was going on and I figured it out after I conducted four little experiments that necessitated a fairly analytic approach to the problem, and is just really fun to do.  But it made me realize what a huge disservice our educational system is doing with the way analytic thinking is usually measured, because it's usually assumed that doing math measures your capacity to think analytically, right?  So I could never take any interesting science or technology classes earlier in life because they always had some stupid math prerequisite I refuse to fulfill, because I absolutely hate math.  Like I don't even know my times tables, that’s how much I hate it.  So I resigned myself to a life outside of the sciences, but I really love the process of working out a solution to a puzzle in a thoughtful rigorous systematic way.  So I ended up getting really angry once I realized how much of the course of my life had been determined by stupid math prerequisites that could have been fulfilled in other ways, like, for instance how I went about solving this task.  And it also made me really thankful that a course like this one exists where it matters more what you can do than whatever your resume happens to look like, and that's pretty amazing for people.

She never graduated high school but she is becoming a very good hacker which requires serious attention to detail and reasoning to figure out what is going on in a world that is intentionally hidden from view.  Here she is talking about why she avoided computer stuff until now:

My mom is a Professor of Computer Science and I’ve always had a proclivity new for playing with computers.  I would pick up computer skills quite quickly.  I was spending days writing exquisite regular expressions as a teenager to help automate and clean up and format text, scanned in OCR just so I can annotate what I was reading more easily.  I was a 9 year old. I catalogued all the glitches I could find in my favorite video game and made a website to share all the fun bugs I found.  But it never even occurred to me to pursue anything computer related as a career because I found the people in the computer science department excruciatingly boring.  Subsequent experiences with IT staff and people that enjoyed programming did nothing to mitigate that impression.  What I wished somebody had told me as a teenager was that the most interesting people who play with computers are hiding in computer security.  I wish somebody had told me that you can get into this field without being a black hat first.  There’s good hackers not just black hats.  And you still can be a good hacker even if you’re too nice to troll anybody.  I probably would have gone into this field fifteen years ago if I realized that’s where all the interesting people who like tinkering with computers are.  And if a daughter of a computer scientist doesn’t know that, what chance do other women with the same proclivities have?  I never would have realized any of this. But I just happened to know somebody who said “I think you might be good at this.  Don’t worry these people are really different from the normal CS people.”  So I think a big part of the problem is the PR problem for computer science.  

Now, she is not a “normal” kid. In fact she would be classified as being on the autism spectrum. But the interesting thing about that “spectrum” is that it is used to take kids who are not compliant and get them out of the classroom. Teachers don’t want students who refuse to do what they have been asked to do.

This “spectrum” didn't exist when my kids were in school. They both hated school and were difficult to deal with. My son refused to do his reading homework when he was in the third grade. The teacher sent for me. I asked him why he wasn’t doing it and he said it was boring and tedious. I looked at it. He was right. He had to read random paragraphs and then answer  multiple choice questions about that paragraph. 

When I met with the teacher she agreed that the homework was boring and asked what I suggested. I said my son like to read. He could be assigned to read a book. (Or even more radical, he could choose a book he wanted to read and report on it.) 

The teacher thought this was a fine idea and my son was happy. But, a few weeks later I was called in to see the teacher again. She said they had to abandon my “read a book” idea. Why? Because my son had been in the advanced reading group. The other kids in the group were complaining that reading a book was too hard. They were in that group because they were good at reading short paragraphs and answering questions. They didn’t want to do the “deep dive” that reading a book entailed.

As long as we see learning as a quest for grades,  credits, and “coverage”,  most students will prefer doing as little as possible to achieve that and they will not fight back against the system. To put this another way, our education system is rigged to be simplistic, and most students prefer it that way. Except the students who have a real desire to do something want to take the deep dive. They also want to be able to choose which deep dive to take. (My son would have chosen to read every subway book he could find; instead he had to read Dick and Jane.)

Deep dive learning means exactly that — allowing students to take a deep dive into what they want to do and then letting them go at that for as long as they want. What bad would happen if we allowed that? Well they might not learn history or literature. But as we see from USMA the entire point of learning these subjects is to teach critical thinking which could certainly be taught from a deep dive into any complex area.

Take a deep dive and learn how to do something complex. Shouldn’t that be our approach to education instead of the one size fits all approach we have now?

You would think that corporate training people would understand this, but they do not. They want courses that are an hour long. Did I say an hour? I meant five minutes.

Take a deep dive and learn to do something real. Schools can’t allow this because their structure is immutable. That will have to change and change soon if we want to produce students who are job ready. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

a July 4th message; my favorite President speaks

These days, I find it hard to travel from the U.S. without getting involved in a conversation about Mr. Trump. The world is full of people who find him an odd person and an odd president. I typically ask them to name a U.S. president who they admired. Nixon? Bush? FDR? Lyndon Johnson? Mr Trump hasn’t started any wars has he? The “wonderful" JFK started the Viet Nam War but we seem to give him a pass on that one because he was charming.

So, as my way of celebrating July 4 (which is actually the anniversary of nothing — just a date put on a document that was signed 2 days prior) I thought I would mention my favourite U.S. President: John Adams.

As I am pretty much a one issue guy when it comes to Presidents, I like John Adams because of his attitude on education. Here is my favourite quote by him:

“There are two types of education… One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.”

I love this quote because it sums up the obvious about school, and it has been ignored by nearly all educators. 

Why did Adams feel this way? It must be that he got a very pragmatic education, I suppose. Nah. Adams went to Harvard. And, what did he learn at Harvard in 1752? Adams studied mathematics, British and classical history, science, philosophy, and Latin and Greek. He ranked at the top of his class academically.  

In other words more or less the same stuff people study everywhere in every school today (minus the Latin and Greek and with the addition of some science that didn’t then exist.)

So, why the disdain for the impracticality of the education system?

Here is a quote from a letter he wrote to his wife in 1780:

The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

This is brilliant remark. After he got out into the real world he began to understand that all that Latin and Greek and Mathematics wasn’t turning out to be very valuable to him. He wished that he had studied government. (Of course, they didn't teach that at Harvard. They do today but it isn’t very popular with students.) Also politics and war. Not taught at Harvard then.

He wanted his sons to study commerce and agriculture, which are certainly not taught to Harvard undergraduates. Why did he want that? He says so their sons could study poetry, music, and painting.

This is a brilliant remark and, like his earlier quote above, has been totally ignored by the education establishment.

What he is saying, if I interpret him correctly, is that it is all very well to study things you will never use but will expand your mind, if and only if you are living in well functioning country where the pragmatic things have worked very well and where we all have time on our hands to spend in pleasant pursuits.

Of course, we have not achieved that since 1776. Our country does not run perfectly and we need people who can run businesses, invent new ideas, and grow as the world changes. We don’t have that, in part because school hasn’t changed at all. We don't teach how to make a living nor do we teach how to live. We pretend that we teach that by requiring STEM and arguing about how important the humanities are. Instead of blindly believing that mathematics teaches reasoning we might actually try to teach practical things and help people learn to live and work. Instead we teach the quadratic formula, which we never use. 

Adams got a Harvard education and it did nothing for him directly. Indirectly, it helped him become a thinking person with original ideas. It didn't help him do that by making him study Greek. Going to Harvard today teaches students what it taught then, how to interact with other intelligent people and learn from that interaction.

To put this another away, the Harvard curriculum is as irrelevant today to the average person as it was to Adams. But it is nice to be around smart people.

And, as much as we like to vilify Mr Trump, he did just decide to support apprenticeship programs, and idea that Adams would have surely endorsed, but this news might have gotten lost in the barrel of news about his tweeting:

On Thursday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to substantially increase the number of U.S. apprenticeships from the current 500,000 (minuscule for the size of the economy) by doubling the amount the government spends on apprenticeship programs. (Fortune Magazine, June 18, 2017.)

I will end with two more Adams’ quotes: 

Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

“You will ever remember that all the end of study is to make you a good man and a useful citizen.”

– John Adams